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General Election 2017: Party pacts will only lead to more division

Editor's Viewpoint

What is June's general election about in Northern Ireland? Is it about Brexit, the union, Irish unity or simply which tribe is top of the heap when the votes are counted? The answer is probably a bit of all those.

The most distressing thing is that the battlelines being drawn indicate that once again an election will lead to even greater polarisation. It may be 19 years since the Good Friday Agreement was signed with its promise of more inclusivity in society, but it continues to be trumped by the centuries of distrust which have preceded it.

It is evident that the recent Assembly election, when Sinn Fein came within an ace of becoming the top party and nationalists out-polled unionists, produced a shockwave within unionism.

The response has been predictable and it has been swift. In her article in this newspaper today, DUP leader Arlene Foster has outlined how a unionist pact can maximise unionist votes and assuage concerns over the union.

With new UUP leader Robin Swann already stating that his party will not be contesting the West Belfast, Foyle or North Belfast seats and Mrs Foster revealing that her party will not stand in Fermanagh-South Tyrone in the hope that the UUP's Tom Elliott can retain the seat, it is clear that both parties are buying into the project.

There are to be more discussions this week with South Belfast another likely pact site and possibly also South Antrim where the UUP has its second MP.

Unionists are constantly told that the union is safe but recent election results indicate its security is not as great as often imagined. Little wonder then that they are using this election as a way of showing that when feeling under threat the unionist family can unite.

As this newspaper has often said, pacts are not ideal - there are talks of 'alliances' on an anti-Brexit platform on the nationalist side - as they deny the breadth of opportunity for voters. But politics is all about pragmatism and when the going gets tough the parties retreat to their tribal silos.

And, it has to be admitted, the electorate by and large follows suit. Certainly Northern Ireland is a better place today than it was two decades ago, but it is still a society with a fundamental rift - pro or anti-union.

Ultimately this election, like every other one, is a headcount to see which side of the rift is crumbling.

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